Parte Vieja (Old Town)
The Old Town of San Sebastián is known for having the highest concentration of bars in the world. It is formed by narrow streets located at the foot of the Mount Urgull.
The Old Town is an ideal place to go for a walk. Just don’t forget to stop and relax at one of the many bars to try some of the local pintxos, which are famous for being especially tasty in this area. Unfortunately, they are also the most expensive of the Basque Country, but don’t let that deter you.
Once you are in the Old Town, don’t forget to take a look at the Santa María del Coro Church and the Constitution Square, a neo-classical square built around the former City Hall and commonly known by the locals as “la consti.”
San Telmo Museum
The San Telmo Museum is located in the Old Town, at the foot of the Mount Urgull. It is primarily dedicated to Basque culture and history, providing visitors with a deeper insight into present day Basque society. The collection contains more than 26,000 ethnographic, archeological, historical, photographic and artistic elements.
The San Telmo Museum was inaugurated in 1902, becoming the oldest museum of the Basque Country. It has been housed in the current building since 1932. Today, the building itself is actually one of the highlights of the museum. The complex that forms it is divided in two. The original building is a dominican convent from the 16th century, which is a unique architecture example in the region due to its mixture of gothic and renaissance styles. The new building was added to the museum a couple of years ago and was designed by the architects Nieto y Sobejano. The contemporary and vanguardist architecture added to the overall appeal of the complex, creating a very interesting mixture of old and new.
If you only visit one museum in San Sebastian, then the San Telmo Museum should definitely be the one.
Ayuntamiento (city hall)
Located between La Concha Beach and the Old Town is the city hall, one of the most majestic buildings of San Sebastián. It is located in a beautiful location alongside the water and the well-maintained Alderdi Eder Gardens.
Originally built in 1882 as a casino hall, it once hosted parties of the Belle Époque era, when Europe’s bourgeoisie and aristocracy spent their summers in San Sebastian.
During World War I, the casino was filled with an eclectic mix of political refugees, spies (such as Mata Hari) and those wealthy enough to flee the fighting in the north. Later on during the Spanish Civil War, the building was also caught up in the fighting between the nationalists and republicans. Today, bullet holes can still be seen on the facade of the building as a result of the bloody fighting that took place alongside it.
Since 1947 the building has been used to house the city hall, which until then, was located at the Constitution Square.
The part of the city situated south of the Old Town is known as the romantic center of San Sebastian. This neighborhood is filled with beautiful buildings from the late 19th century and has plenty of clothing stores, bars and restaurants. With its Parisian style, the romantic center is definitely worth a stroll.
While in the romantic center, make sure you check out the Gipuzkoa Square, a charming square overlooked by the the neoclassical Diputación building (regional seat of government). The Good Shepherd Cathedral is also located in the romantic center. It is the perfect example of the foreign European influences that helped shape San Sebastian during the second half of the 19th century.
Mount Urgull & Mota Castle
Mount Urgull stretches out into San Sebastian’s bay and is surrounded by water, except for one section that connects to the Old Town. Historically, the mount has served as an important strategic defense point for the city and especially for the Old Town that was established at the mount’s base. Today, military ruins such as cannons, as well as parts of the original wall that surrounded the medieval city can still be found on the hill.
The long military history of Mount Urgull can be traced back to the first watchtower and defensive wall that were built around 1150. Throughout the years, the mount has been witness to many important battles, the most notable of those took place in 1794, when the mount was overtaken by French troops who then subsequently conquered the city.
Another important battle took place on August 31st, 1813, when British soldiers helped the Spanish fight against Napoleon and his troops. Many British soldiers were killed in the battle and then buried on the north hillside of the Mount Urgull in what is known as the English Cemetery. The Spanish and the British were however, successful in defeating Napoleon’s troops which lead to them being kicked out of San Sebastian. Unfortunately though, when the fighting was all over, the city had been burned to the ground. Only a single street in the Old Town wasn’t affected and today is known as Calle 31 de Agosto in remembrance of that date.
Continuing up the hill from the English Cemetery, you will find the Batería de Santiago, also called Batería de la Reina, which was one of the places where gunpowder and other explosives were kept. Some steps down from the Batería de Santiago is the Batería alta de Santa Clara. Here, you will find a small bar with a nice terrace offering some of the most beautiful views of San Sebastian. This is a fantastic place to stop for a break on your way up to the top.
At the highest point of the Mount Urgull is the Mota Castle which has existed since the 12th century. It has been restructured and rebuilt many times over the years, however, today, the castle houses a History House Museum, which as its name implies, tells the history of the city. The museum contains pictures, historic elements as well as a video about the burning down of the city.
Peine del Viento (Comb of the Wind)
The Peine del Viento is a group of steel sculptures located at the end of Ondarreta Beach. Designed by local sculptor Eduardo Chillida, it is probably the most iconic image of San Sebastián.
The metal structures have been fused into the rocks over the Cantabrian Sea. Waves smash violently against the rocks, while the wind “combs” through the structures.
Chillida also made some holes in the ground, allowing for waves to pass underneath and then be blasted skyward through small opening in the ground. But be careful though – when the seas are high, these blasts of water can go as high as seven meters!
Mount Igueldo & the Funicular
Mount Igueldo is located in the western corner of the city, between Ondarreta Beach and the Peine del Viento. From the top of the mount, you can enjoy some of the best views of San Sebastián.
The main attraction at the top of the Mount Igueldo is an old amusement park, which opened its doors in 1911 and is one if the oldest in the Basque Country. If you do decide to go in, don’t expect much of the rides, since the park is small, old and a little run down. It is more about the charm of the place, situated in a perfect location.
Next to the amusement park stands a tower called “El Torreón.” Originally built in the 16th century, the tower served as the light house of San Sebastian until a new one was built in 1854. At the beginning of the 20th century, El Torreón was renovated and a new floor was added to it as well as a panoramic terrace. Currently, the tower is open to visitors and holds an exhibition in the stairwell with many historic photos. It only costs a few euros to climb the tower and it does offer great views, however, they aren’t that much better than the already great views that can be had for free on the terraces by the funicular.
There is also a hotel at the top of the Mount Igueldo. What originally served as the casino-restaurant of the Mount Igueldo, became the Hotel Mercure Monte Igueldo in 1967. If you want to wake up to some impressive views of the San Sebastian bay, then this is probably the perfect place for you.
The best way to get to the top of Mount Igueldo is by using the funicular railway which has been operating since 1912 and is the oldest in the Basque Country. The entrance of the funicular is located at the end of Ondarreta beach, just before el Peine del Viento sculpture.
Mercado La Bretxa
Dating back to 1871, the Bretxa Market is one of the most traditional markets in Donostia. It was originally built in classicist style, taking its inspirations from ancient Rome and Greece and utilizes primarily stone and iron for its construction. As the population of San Sebastian grew over the years, so did the market. It was extended several times with the last big renovation taking place in 1999, after which unfortunately a big part of “La Bretxa” was converted into a mall.
The building complex still contains a market, however, it has been relegated to share the underground level with a supermarket chain. Underground you can still discover a big variety of local produce and all those fresh ingredients that are used in the famous Basque cuisine.
La Bretxa Market receives its name from its location which was the weakest point of the original wall that surrounded the city until 1863. This weak point was known as “the breach” or “la bretxa” in Basque. On two occasions (1719 and 1813) invaders were able to break through the wall and get into the city around where the market is located.
Victoria Eugenia Theater
The Victoria Eugenia Theater was inaugurated in 1912 and features neo-renaissance and neo-plateresque styles. Since its opening, it has been witness to the most important cultural events of San Sebastian. The most important of those is the annual San Sebastián International Film Festival. During that festival, it is normal to see celebrities crossing the square from the five-star Hotel María Cristina to reach the red carpet of the Victoria Eugenia Theater.
In 2001 the theater closed its doors for renovation works. It was re-opened six years later, incorporating the most modern equipment and services while keeping all its charm and original characteristics.
The Kursaal is a postmodern convention center which opened in 1999 and was designed by Rafael Moneo. It is located on the shore next the Zurriola Beach and was designed to represent “two beached rocks.”
During the day, the building is quite boring – some might even say its ugly. However, at night it completely changes as the whole façade lights up and functions as a kind of giant billboard advertising whatever function is going on at the time in the city.
Port Area & Aquarium
The port area, situated in the western corner of Mount Urgull, is a nice place for sitting down and relaxing for a bit. The sunset there is magical, especially if there are sailboats in the bay that appear as silhouettes. The port also offers a great view of La Concha and Mount Igueldo.
At the far end of the port, you will find the Aquarium. It was inaugurated in 1928 and renovated in 1998. The visit of the aquarium starts by going through the Nature Science Museum, where information is given about the importance of the sea in the history of Gipuzkoa. Of the entire museum, one of the most impressive displays is the skeleton of a right whale captured in 1878.
After the museum, the visit continues through the aquariums. The main highlight is a 1.8 million liter aquarium which can be crossed through a glass tunnel.
The Miramar Palace is a Queen Anne style English villa located in one of the most beautiful spots of San Sebastian – on a the hill that separates the beaches of La Concha and Ondarreta.
The Miramar Palace was built in the late 19th century by Queen Regent María Cristina as the summer residence of the Spanish monarchy. It was designed by the English architect Selden Wornun.
Since 1972, the Miramar Palace and its gardens have belonged to the City Hall of San Sebastian. Although the building is not open to the public, its gardens are and the views from there are superb. Both beaches, La Concha and Ondarreta, as well as Mount Igueldo, Mount Urgull and Santa Clara Island, can all be seen from the property.